Le Petit Lieutenant
2005Director: Xavier Beauvois
Cast: Nathalie Baye, Jalil Lespert, Roschdy Zem
othing special,” writes one imdb user, criticizing the crime story in Xavier Beauvois’ decidedly mundane procedural, and the funny thing is that the film’s titular lieutenant would agree. Antoine (Jalil Lespert) bemoans provincial police-work on the basis that 80% of all the major crime is in Paris, and he’s stuck in tiny Le Havre, missing out on all the action. A second later, he lazily commands his meek girlfriend to strip down, cementing a trivial puerility. So, it can’t quite be said that Beauvois is bereft of novel, impressively lurid ideas for murders, because he’s expressly against them, if we’re to take Antoine’s lust for intrigue as our own.
For Beauvois, the history of the cop movie and the occupation itself are so imbricated that they must be systematically divorced. If anything, he critiques the high standard for mayhem too explicitly, plastering the walls with posters from several American, for the lack of a more accurate term, “thrillers”—Saving Private Ryan, Reservoir Dogs, Se7en—and one European policier, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Un Flic. Plucky young Antoine just completed myriad requisites detailed in the film’s opening minutes, learning elaborate marching formations, memorizing technical classifications, and throwing his academy beret to the sky, but these are ultimately just slight formalities, as the true rite of un flic is Un Flic.
While a detachment from reality is the central tragedy of Lieutenant and Antoine’s cinephilia is its paragon, the association Beauvois creates between this detachment and neo-liberal values further complicates things. Let’s assume that Antoine is a largely apolitical dreamer, carousing and casually assenting with his new co-workers. In an unmistakable visual metaphor for having his Head in the Clouds, he recklessly zooms through busy streets with flashing siren and badge in tow while his face merges with the reflected sky on his windshield. This eagerness to conform to the role of Rookie Cop is, ironically, a source of profound negligence. In counterpoint, two political extremes are presented in the forms of Roschdy Zem’s spiteful, hardened Moroccan and a right-wing Bad Cop suggestively played by Beauvois himself. But so long as these men can put their preferred method of interrogation into practice—respectively, extreme leniency and extreme badgering—they’re satisfied to let the larger investigation just kinda chug along. The endless string of suspects is by turns innocuous and evil, gregarious and soft-spoken, but always evasive, and sporadic turns of luck are far more common than rewarded intuition; no method proves reliable. The impression is that any real values are subordinated to a nebulous whole in favor of case-specific scrutiny, which the malleable Antoine can wholeheartedly embrace—not a bad modus operandi, per se.
But Beauvois’ vision of a liberal-minded police is far from utopic. Antoine is symptomatic of a weak-willed moral center, and there’s a careful balance sustained between aligning us with his cool and distancing us from his cluelessness, exemplified by a hilarious aside where he shares a roach with a grungy passerby. “This place is loaded with cops!”, the junkie warns, and it’s with both a sigh of relief and a gasp of horror that we realize it doesn’t matter when those cops are rendered impotent by their own ambivalence.
Sure, this police force is advanced, rife with sufficient gadgetry and resources to make a pedant for plausibility orgasm. There are translators available, but we’re still subjected to entire conversations in un-subtitled Russian with just a single potentially pertinent phrase. And there are computer programs that visualize suspects but require witness confirmation, with all the verifiable accuracy of a lie detector. The promise of an answer is always nigh, but often remains just so. A major plot turn relies entirely on probability and the uneven chances of an A and B we both fully understand: No wonder Beauvois never diverges from straight chronology, as the unknowable future fuels his work.
Even an amoral troupe requires a backbone, and Caroline (Nathalie Baye) is Antoine’s personal maternal Morgan Freeman. She calmly ushers him into complicity with his bad habits, and even stands by a colleague who’s made an indefensible error. But despite the failings of her devotion and late-breaking lapse into old problems, she has an integrity of mind unique among the film’s characters; she gets the last word, gazing at us and bluntly disrupting a formal pattern otherwise devoid of the clarity that direct address offers. The message remains uncertain: Don’t join the French police? Don’t pity the French police? Or to purloin the title of Beauvois’ 1995 film, don’t forget you’re going to die? What lingers is humility, a somber resignation to the limits of technology, politics, and cinema itself.